The Best Movies of 2021

It’s been a long year. I’m referring, of course, to 2020, which is still going, some 800-plus days after it started. Oh, it’s 2022?! Ah, shit. That means this list is super-late. Sorry! But maybe we could all use some extra time to think about our choices, and how extremely correct they all are. I won’t waste any more time. Let’s get to the list for another year where everything was garbage but the movies. You can listen to us defend our choices here.

The 15 Best Movies of 2021

15. Encanto

I know people are kind of pissed that the brekaout Encanto hit “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is getting a performance on the Oscars where it’s not even among the nominated songs (Disney, ever wary of competing against themselves, submitted the more emotional “Dos Orugitas,” which did get nominated), while certain categories aren’t being broadcast live on the telecast. But I do have to hand it to Encanto: It’s rare to see a song from a movie, even (or especially?) a movie musical, permeate the culture to the point where it becomes obligatory to acknowledge it on an awards show where it’s not actually up for anything. There’s plenty to love about Encanto, from the vibrant animation to the endearing vocal performances to the way it makes certain parents choke back tears while their children watch the movie attentively from their laps, but this batch of songs, trickier and more Broadway-like in their complexity than some other recent (and excellent) Disney song scores, feels like the a major difference-maker. “Bruno,” “Orugitas,” “Surface Pressure,” “The Family Madrigal”… Lin-Manuel Miranda has that rare Menken/Ashman ability to feel like a major creative voice behind the cartoons he song-scores, especially vital to this unusually interior, homebound adventure story. – Jesse

14. No Sudden Move

How easy is it to take Steven Soderbergh for granted? Well, by the time I got around to writing up No Sudden Move as one of the relatively unsung great movies of 2021, Soderbergh had already delivered another, equally terrific thriller for 2022. Kimi is streaming on HBO Max right now, as is No Sudden Move, a vintage Soderbergh caper picture with sharp, hard edges and an uncommonly funny and perceptive script from Ed Solomon. An Ocean’s 11 where everyone is out for themselves and the house is played by Matt Damon, this movie boasts excellent work from no less an ensemble than Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Brendan Fraser, Amy Seimetz, Julia Fox, Jon Hamm, and a perfectly steamed Ray Liotta, and Soderbergh guides them with such a sure hand through his slightly fish-eyed compositions and Solomon’s neo-noir dealings that the whole thing is just about wrapped up before you realize how many people are reaching recent career peaks. The next movie to waste the talents of Cheadle or del Toro has been pre-shamed. – Jesse

13. Drive My Car

Grief can be a very difficult thing to capture well on film. It’s such an internal and private process that to articulate it in any way can risk cheapening it. A nearly-three-hour adaptation that stitches together three different Haruki Murakami short stories, centering on an experimental multilingual production of Uncle Vanya, doesn’t necessarily sound like a slam-dunk cinematic experience, or at least not an easily interpretable one to anyone who isn’t a Chekov scholar. But that’s exactly the story Drive My Cars director Ryusuke Hamaguchi chose for purposes of exploring the depths of loss that people can get overwhelmed in. Meditatively paced, featuring several real-time scenes of actors reciting dialogue from the play, this one will probably either work very well for you or put you to sleep – I believe I’m the only SportsAlcoholic(?) who put it on their list, albeit highly enough that it squeaked onto the group countdown. [That’s partially on me, the only other person who was able to see it before deadline. -Ed.] But that speaks to the intensely personal themes it’s exploring, and even if the penultimate scenes here don’t reduce you to a puddle as they did for me, there’s something to be said for a film that takes its time, ending with a startlingly beautiful coda that flashes forward to our pandemic present, a moment of grace that transcends any need for translation. – Sara

12. Godzilla vs. Kong

For a rematch that fans had been asking for over nearly 60 years, it is notable that Godzilla vs. Kong arrived in ailing 2021 movie theaters less a stately, homage-packed tribute to the history and importance of two cinematic archetypes than it is a gonzo celebration of many decades of inspired nuttiness. It’s a movie packed full of the wild-eyed flights of creative fancy that countless kids have doodled in the margins of notebooks or shouted over battered action figures, and it places these icons of imagination in a world filled with subterranean Edens and giant robots (psychically controlled by a malevolent alien skull!). Then it smashes them together in a series of satisfying battle sequences that answer old playground arguments and give both creatures an inner life an personality that feels both new and correct. By the time they part ways, this has become the best film ever made. So good work, everybody. – Nathaniel

11. Petite Maman

There are so many stories out there now that do a riff on the unhappy mother, and a lot of them come with judgement even when they present themselves as being empathetic to the hard work of motherhood. Petit Maman comes at the same themes from a totally fresh, totally unseen-by-me angle, where there’s depression and absence hanging over everything, but most of what you see on screen is joy. The irresistible magical-realist premise sees Nelly (Josephine Sanz), a young girl, meeting a younger version of her mother, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), when they’re about the same age. The two kids spend their time making tree forts, assembling disgustingly sweet snacks, and doing other things kids like to do, but their interactions are still freighted with future dynamics. Depression and grief are mixed with sweetness, and the revelations Nelly is able to access about her mother, grandmother, and a number of intergenerational relationships, makes it a more compassionate portrait of ambivalent motherhood — and one without judgement. – Marisa

10. Luca

Pixar experienced some growing pains in 2020, as both the ambitious world-building of Onward and heady metaphysics of Soul got their current era of sequel avoidance off to a relatively bumpy start, with emotional catharsis subjected to some hairpin turns and wobbly writing. Luca (and the new Turning Red, a likely candidate for next year’s list!) ride out the messiness with coming-of-age narratives that are inherently erratic, animated with a looser, more intimate style than any of its big-studio U.S. competitors care to muster. Luca, about two tween sea monsters becoming land-dwelling besties in small-town Italy, feels positively unburdened compared to the literally life-and-death stakes of recent Pixar productions, which makes it easy to mistake for minor. But director Enrico Casarosa gives his characters both bounce and a genuine ache, capturing the way that even an unruly influence can have a stabilizing effect on the tumult of adolescence. Compared to higher-tech productions, its cartooniness feels like a warm embrace. – Jesse

9. In the Heights

The best musical sequence in In the Heights is unquestionably “96,000,” a giddy, exultant burst of fun-in-the-sun frolicking, complete with bright colors, euphoric choreography, and playful flourishes like an animated lightsaber. At least, that’s probably the best such sequence; it’s arguably tied with “When the Sun Goes Down,” which finds two erstwhile lovers literally dancing their way up a building’s brick façade, like a perpendicular Rogers and Astaire. Or maybe it’s “Paciencia y Fe,” which gently ruminates on a matriarch’s decades-long journey by transforming a subway station into a time machine. Shit, I forgot about “Champagne,” a gorgeous single-take duet that invests a would-be couple’s joint desires and regrets with urgency and vitality. You get the idea: Jon M. Chu’s big-screen version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway hit is a triumphant feat of adaptation, reimagining the play with theatrical flair and visual verve. That it resonates as a hopeful story of the Latinx-American immigrant experience feels like a mere bonus, though that shouldn’t diminish the contributions of the nimble and talented cast, in particular Anthony Ramos as a hungry striver battling gentrification. Still, the movie is most notable for its dynamism—the energetic way it translates music and lyrics into cinema. Under Chu’s stewardship, the title acquires a double meaning: In chronicling the hardships and joys of a specific Manhattan neighborhood, In the Heights bounces buoyantly from one artistic apex to the next. – Jeremy

8. The Power of the Dog

First, a humble request: it’s time we as a culture dispense with the term “revisionist Western.” Directors have been making them since at least John Ford’s The Searchers in 1956. If we’ve been revising a genre for sixty-plus years, I think it’s just what the genre is now. That’s not to take anything away from the accomplishments of Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, of which there are many. But she’s not deconstructing the Western here; she’s deconstructing the entire concept of American masculinity. You may question her qualifications as a foreigner as a woman. But so-called outsiders are often our most merciless assessors – the natural distance they have allowing for a fuller, more honest picture. Campion has always been a forthrightly feminist filmmaker, a master sensualist with a keen grasp of an environment’s textures and their effects on her characters’ understanding of themselves, and she’s found pretty much the perfect medium for her talents with this story of a closeted cowboy whose denial of his own desires manifests in boundless cruelty toward any softness he senses in his surroundings. Drawing career best performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst, not to mention an extremely unsettling one from Kodi Smit-McPhee, Campion manages to make everything in her film look right but feel very wrong, setting an ingenious trap for viewers that closes its teeth around your neck so subtly you won’t realize you’re choking until it’s too late. – Sara

7. The Worst Person in the World

As a self-described female fuck-up in her mid-thirties and an avid reader and writer, there was pretty much no 2021 film I was guaranteed to have more built-in affection for than The Worst Person in the World. And while I may have some minor quibbles with the characterization of lead Julie (played with ravishing charm by Renate Reinsve), the Oslo-set film does capture a certain impulsive itchiness that comes with being the unsettled one in your friend group, no matter what gender you identify as or what country you’re from. Writer-director Joachim Trier structures the film with the deliberately meandering plotlessness of autofiction, understanding that life branches out unexpectedly and sometimes requires ceding the spotlight when loved ones are in pain, as Julie does late in the film to her ex-boyfriend. While some critics dinged this portion of Worst Person as overly sentimental, to me it felt like an act of generosity a lesser film wouldn’t make time for, and a stealth reminder that living with a little recklessness, as Julie does, is often better than risking nothing at all.– Sara

6. Titane

It was a banner year for complicated portraits of motherhood in film. Two such performances made the Academy’s final Best Actress list (Oliva Colman in The Lost Daughter and Penelope Cruz in Parallel Mothers, both more than deserving) but personally I wish a little room had been made for Agathe Rousselle’s intensely physical near-wordless debut in Titane. The film won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes, which in most cases would give a director’s second feature a sheen of awards-worthy respectability. But Julia Ducournau has already carved out a niche for herself as an uncompromising explorer of the female body’s twin potential for gestation and destruction in her short career, and Titane is her fullest journey yet. To discuss the film’s plot at all is to risk ruining it for the uninitiated, but suffice to say if you’re interested in what it means to give oneself over to something bigger, whether that be a child, another person, or a machine, Titane might just be the heart-warming, gender-bending family dramedy to get your engine running. – Sara

5. Red Rocket

Red Rocket is a deeply disturbing picture: an unflinching portrait of human selfishness, a sad depiction of impoverished squalor, and a chilling study of sexual predation. Did I mention that it’s a blast to watch? Sean Baker’s latest odyssey into underprivileged Americana is less nakedly empathetic than The Florida Project, even if it features more actual nudity. Yet even as Red Rocket indicts its protagonist for his louche amorality, it also acknowledges the sheer force of his personality. How could it not, when said protagonist is played with such explosive, demented vigor by Simon Rex, a furiously watchable presence who’s equal parts appealing and appalling? Rex’s character, a washed-up porn star eager to exploit a seventeen-year-old naïf (the highly promising Suzanna Son) for his own personal and commercial gain, is a pure narcissist, and a groomer to boot. But there’s something mesmerizing about his manipulation, and when this motor-mouthed predator and his demure prey share the screen, Red Rocket holds an unholy magnetism. Baker always treats his characters with abiding respect, and here his rigorous sincerity collides gloriously with Rex’s shameless indecency; as the director makes you feel, the actor makes you howl—with laughter and terror alike. Toxicity has rarely been so intoxicating. – Jeremy

4. The Green Knight

If you listen to our 1991 podcast, you’ll hear my story about how I became a Robin Hood nerd when I was a kid, Robin-pilled by Kevin Costner. Robin Hood nerdery and King Arthur nerdery were always adjacent to each other, but I always kept it at arm’s length. I wanted bows and arrows and action, not wizardry! The Green Knight makes me think … maybe I picked the wrong team? There’s tree people! Beheaded ghosts! A talking fox! Giants! This shit is legitimately cool. And in David Lowery’s hands, it’s also a beautiful dream. – Marisa

3. The French Dispatch

The sniffy critique of Wes Anderson is that he keeps making the same movie over and over. To the extent it’s true (it isn’t), this complaint really functions as a compliment, recognizing the extraordinary care and distinctive personality that the director brings to his meticulously realized creations. So yes, The French Dispatch provides more of the magnificent same: more immaculately designed sets; more fastidious, symmetrical compositions; more whimsical detours and shifting aspect ratios. The familiarity (which is to say the supremacy) of Anderson’s technique is marvelous enough, but there’s more to this tripartite movie—which unfolds in three narratively distinct but thematically linked chapters, and which features winning performances from (among others) Adrien Brody, Benicio del Toro, and Jeffrey Wright—than just Wes doing Wes. As a stylist, he continues to innovate, deploying new devices like quasi-freeze frames and breakneck montages. He also refines his gift for placing shards of melancholy within his pristinely arranged packages, adding stabs of raw feeling to his precise arrangements. And in penning a visual valentine to The New Yorker, Anderson has constructed his own ode to the collaborative art of moviemaking. “Let’s write it together,” a character says of a momentous final project, and that spirit of fellowship animates The French Dispatch, the vision of a singularly gifted auteur that also feels like a giant, jubilant piece of teamwork. More of the same? Hardly. No movie so vibrantly alive, and so insistently original, could possibly feel like a copy. – Jeremy

2. Licorice Pizza

I don’t know how Paul Thomas Anderson does it but he turns Alana Haim driving a truck down a hill into the best action movie of the year. And her running is one of the best romances of the year. And her riding on the back of a motorcycle is one of the best horror movies of the year. And Cooper Hoffman’s water-bed story is one of the best rise-and-fall-of-a-corporation movies of the year. Maybe there’s some true crime in there, too? I don’t know. And the fact that it’s messy, and maybe not all perfectly considered, forever rushing on to the next adventure, just makes it all the more true to adolescence. – Marisa

1. West Side Story

What is there, really, that can be said? Spielberg is the best in the business, working at the top of his game (in God mode, as Jesse said). There are still some source-material issues (though Kushner irons a lot of those out by making the movie more about what it’s actually about), and it has an Ansel Elgort problem (though Spielberg really does wring the best out of him), but there’s so much exuberance to the filmmaking of the new West Side Story that your heart can just flutter over the problems. We’ve been showing our 6-year-old some of the musical sequences, one out of time and out of order. I don’t want to show her the whole thing because I don’t think she’s at the age yet when she can handle the ending. But even though she knows nothing about the way a film is put together, I can see it working on her. She’s drawn in by the dancing, and she’s held in an emotion that’s sort of like suspense until the scene cuts out. And even though I know more about how those sequences are built, I’m in that suspense with her. It’s why I go to movies. —Marisa